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Literature / The Three Hostages

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The Three Hostages is a thriller novel by John Buchan. It is the fourth to star Richard Hannay, who was introduced in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

With World War I over, Sir Richard and Lady Hannay are enjoying a quiet life in the country, but when three young people are kidnapped and a mind-controlling genius starts leaving cryptic clues behind, the pair of former spy-hunters have to go back to work.

The Three Hostages contains examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Dominick Medina. He's noted to have no interest in women, and he has a rather intense interest in Hannay that goes far beyond wanting to keep an eye on a potential threat.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The normally mild-mannered Mary Hannay gets ferocious in defence of the youngest hostage, a small boy. During the climactic confrontation with the villain, he laughs in Richard and Sandy's faces, but Mary frightens the life out of him.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: The criminal mastermind has ample opportunities to do away with Richard Hannay but opts not to do so.
  • Brandishment Bluff: At a key moment in the climactic confrontation, Mary bluffs the criminal mastermind with a small green bottle that she implies contains a powerful acid, giving a vivid description of what its contents will do to him. Afterward, when her husband expresses concern at how cavalierly she's handling the bottle, she admits that it's just a bottle of perfume she happened to have in her purse.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Sandy mentions that he distrusts Dominick Medina because of the way Medina treated his friend Lavater. Lavater turns out to have a larger role in the story than is immediately obvious.
  • The Chessmaster: Dominick Medina.
  • Criminal Mind Games: The evil mastermind has a penchant for sending the police taunting riddles in verse. It leads to his downfall when a fortunate happenstance of the kind Hannay seems to attract gives him a chance to unravel the latest one.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Peter John Hannay is named in honour of his father's old friend Peter Pienaar, who died heroically in Mr. Standfast before his namesake was born.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: A heroic example, where Sandy Arbuthnot is investigating one of the villain's trusted advisors when the man dies, and Sandy (a Master Actor) takes the opportunity to impersonate him and get an in with the villain. The substitution happens offscreen and the first the audience learns of it is at the same time as the protagonist and the villain, when Sandy dramatically unmasks near the end of the novel.
  • Determinator: Probably Richard Hannay's defining character trait as well as his preferred modus operandi, both mental and physical—he will keep running long after anyone else would have lain down and died from exhaustion, exposure, injuries, or being blown up.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Dominick Medina is a well-known and respected public figure who's also the head of an international crime syndicate.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The Three Hostages is prefaced with a dedication to a young fan who had supposedly written to Buchan complaining about one of his non-fiction books and asking for more Hannay adventures (see the entry for Lampshade Hanging below), in which Buchan claims that he recently met Hannay socially and was told by him the story that follows.
  • Driven to Suicide: When the police round up the criminal gang near the end, several of the ringleaders commit suicide to avoid capture and public disgrace.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: When the villain learns that the heroes have discovered and captured the secret location where the third hostage was being held, overseen by the villain's mother, his first reaction is fear for his mother's safety, and only then concern for the failure of his plot and the security of his global criminal conspiracy.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Medina. Almost every male character comments on how handsome he is, and Hannay says he's fascinated by Medina "as a man is fascinated by a pretty woman".
  • Fingore: During the final fight, Hannay loses parts of a thumb and two fingers when the villain shoots his gun out of his hand.
  • Happily Married: Richard and Mary.
  • Hunting "Accident": The villain attempts to arrange one for Hannay.
  • Hypnotize the Captive: The villain is a master hypnotist, and hypnotizes each of the hostages so they forget who they really and believe they belong in the place where they're being held.
  • Immune to Mind Control: Hannay is naturally resistant to being hypnotized, which stands him in good stead against the mysterious Oriental mesmerism techniques of the villain.
  • Karmic Death: The villain dies just out of reach of Hannay, who is honorable enough to save his life but is prevented from doing so by the injuries the villain has just inflicted on him.
  • Lampshade Hanging: No doubt realising that most of the people who enjoyed his 'shockers' would probably not appreciate his more serious non-fiction, Buchan wrote the following foreword to The Three Hostages:
    Dedication to a young gentleman of Eton Collegenote 
    Honoured sir,
    On your last birthday a well-meaning godfather presented you with a volume of mine, since you had been heard on occasion to express approval of my works. The book dealt with a somewhat arid branch of historical research, and it did not please you. You wrote to me, I remember, complaining that I had 'let you down', and summoning me, as I valued your respect, to 'pull myself together'. In particular you demanded to hear more of the doings of Richard Hannay, a gentleman for whom you professed a liking. I, too, have a liking for Sir Richard, and when I met him the other day (he is now a country neighbour), I observed that his left hand had been considerably mauled, an injury which I knew had not been due to the war. He was so good as to tell me the tale of an unpleasant business in which he had recently been engaged, and to give me permission to retell it for your benefit ... So I herewith present it to you, in the hope that in the eyes of you and your friends it may atone for certain other writings of mine with which you have been afflicted by those in authority.
    June 1924
  • Mama Bear: Mary gets ferocious in defence of the youngest hostage, a small boy. She's not his mother, but it's made clear that her protectiveness toward him is driven by the thought of how she'd feel if her own son were in the same situation.
  • Master of Disguise: Sandy Arbuthnot. There's a scene where Hannay meets him in disguise without having the slightest clue that it's him, even though they're friends and have lived in close quarters for an extended period.
  • "Near and Dear" Baby Naming: Peter John Hannay is named in honour of his father's friends Peter Pienaar and John Blenkiron.
  • Once per Episode:
    • Each of the first three novels has a sequence where Hannay is bedbound for several days due to a relapse of the malaria he caught in his Africa days, and ends up figuring out something important as a result of having nothing to do but lie and think. This one has a bit where he thinks he's going to have another relapse but it turns out to just be nervous stress, but it gives him the idea to pretend he's had a relapse and sneak around uncovering part of the villain's plan while the villain thinks he's safely tucked up in bed.
    • Sandy Arbuthnot goes off on his own to find out what he can about the villains, disappears without leaving any message, and then an apparent antagonist turns out to be Sandy in a disguise he's adopted to infiltrate the villain's organisation.
  • Post-Climax Confrontation: At the climax, the heroes rescue the hostages and the gang is rounded up, but their leader escapes justice. In the final chapter, he shows up while Hannay is on holiday and tries to get his revenge.
  • Refusal of the Call: Hannay refuses two separate requests to help out with the hostage situation, partly because he doesn't want to leave his comfortable retirement and partly because he genuinely doesn't see anything he can do that isn't already being done. He gives in after the third request, from the father of the boy hostage, leads him to think about how he'd feel if it were his own son and realise that he won't be able to live with himself if he doesn't try.
  • Retired Badass: Richard Hannay is called out of his comfortable semi-retirement.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank:
    • Macgillivray emphasizes the outward respectability of the criminal ringleaders they're after by mentioning that one recently dined as a guest of — —, MP.
    • Hannay reads an 18th-century book that includes references to "Lord A—", "the Duke of B—", and "Signorina F—".
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Richard Hannay and friends.
  • To the Pain: During the climactic confrontation with the villain, Mary describes what she's going to do to him if he doesn't release the final hostage, a young child, in detail and with such terrifying conviction that he folds completely.
  • Trust Password: Played with. When Sandy needs to communicate with Hannay secretly, he says that he'll sign his messages with a letter of the Greek alphabet, then changes his mind, saying that he doesn't expect Hannay to know those, so he'll use champion racehorses instead. And so Hannay receives a series of messages signed with names of racehorses — none of which, he notes, are champions, because Sandy's knowledge of horse racing is even worse than Hannay's knowledge of Greek.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Hannay has several encounters with mysterious "sad, grey-faced" man who forms part of Dominick Medina's entourage, but doesn't learn his name until near the end, at which point he turns out to be a person who has been mentioned several times in another context.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Dominick Medina is a well-known and respected public figure, explorer, politician, philanthropist and poet. He's also the Diabolical Mastermind at the head of an international crime syndicate. Even Hannay doesn't believe it until Medina personally tries to put him out of the way. At the end, though the heroes rescue the hostages and break the crime syndicate, they can't touch Medina personally, and he would have got away clean if he hadn't gone after Hannay in a Post-Climax Confrontation.
  • Would Hurt a Child: One of the hostages is a small boy, who will be murdered along with the others if he is not rescued in time.